December 1, 2023

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Bakhmut: How Russia’s barbaric attacks are destroying a Ukrainian city with a rich Jewish history – UJE

The synagogue in Bakhmut (2017), now damaged by Russian shelling.

During the eight-month-long defense of “Fortress Bakhmut,” the city has become famous worldwide as a symbol of Ukrainian invincibility. Along with residential neighborhoods, the Russian aggressors are razing Jewish heritage sites to the ground. Synagogues, sites commemorating the mass murder of Jews, and burial grounds of Holocaust victims are being savagely shelled.

In January 2023, the front line in Bakhmut’s industrial zone curved around ArtWinery on three sides. This is the former Artemivsk Champagne Factory, the largest in Ukraine. The paradox of this history is that since 1950 the ArtWinery factory, with its cool, underground areas for storing champagne, has stood on the site of alabaster mines, in one of which, in January 1942, the Nazis shot and immured over a thousand Jews of Bakhmut (Artemivsk).

On 1 February 2023, after fierce fighting, units of the Ukrainian army and the National Guard of Ukraine retreated from the area around ArtWinery. The Russians occupied the factory and its underground warehouses, including the hall housing a memorial in honor of Holocaust victims, which is located at a depth of seventy meters.

In 1942–1943 the Nazi occupiers killed the Jewish population of Bakhmut, and eighty years later, the Russian occupiers have cut short the great history of Bakhmut’s Jewish community, which was revived after the Second World War.

“Shtetl Bakhmut”
The historians Serhiy Tatarynov and Stanislav Fedotov, authors of the collection Shtetl Bakhmut: The Phenomenon of the Jewish People in the Donbas (Kharkiv, 2013), have a theory about the origin of the name Bakhmut: “Ancient Rus′ narratives about Volodymyr the Great’s adoption of Christianity mentions ‘Bakhmuts,’ a term denoting the Khazars, who adopted Judaism. Perhaps that is also the origin of the Bakhmut River, where the nomadic Khazars had their numerous wintertime livestock stands and pastures.”

The first written mention of Jews in Bakhmut dates to 1799, when 103 Jews (9.8 percent of the population) lived in this city. By 1847 this number rose to 496 Jews, and in 1863 the number of Jews living in Bakhmut increased to 1,560 people. A large synagogue was built in 1863. Bakhmut was also home to several Jewish prayer buildings, three Jewish colleges, and eleven cheders offering elementary school education.

In the early 1880s, of the 1,130 merchants in Bakhmut, 494 were Jews (nearly 44 percent). According to the 1897 census, the city had a population of 19,316 — 3,259 of whom were Jews (nearly 17 percent). By 1917 the share of the Jewish population of Bakhmut rose to 25 percent.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the Jews of Bakhmut were active in all spheres of industry and trade, and in all the skilled trades and new professions, such as pharmacology, medicine, publishing, photography, art, and education.

Big Jewish business was behind the launch of the mining industry in this region of the Donbas. Jews were pioneers in many branches of industry and business, bringing commerce to this previously undeveloped territory.

One Jew-hater was Antiokh Lutskevych, who was the public school inspector of Bakhmut county from 1906 to 1912. He wrote an antisemitic book in which he noted: “Bakhmut seemed pathetic and disgusting to me. The city turned out to be overflowing with Jews, who had taken into their hands trade and industry, banking operations, the medical sector, law, and public education. The largest delivery to the local bazaar of any kind of fowl, fish, eggs, and dairy products takes place only on Fridays, before the Jewish Sabbath, and on the Sabbath itself (Saturday), the market is totally empty, and the city seems to have died out.” Lutskevych was honored with an audience granted by the Russian tsar Nicholas II.

Despite the discrimination against Jews in the Bakhmut Gymnasium, Aron Kitaev graduated from this educational institution with a gold medal and eventually completed his studies at the Faculty of Medicine of Kharkiv University. From 1911 to 1940, he held key positions in Bakhmut’s medical system. Kitaev eradicated a cholera epidemic and created a women’s health system. In 1937 this Jewish doctor was elected first deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from Bakhmut.

Menachem Savidor (Khodorovsky), a native of Bakhmut born in 1917, played a role in the history of Israel. After arriving in the Land of Israel, he served in the British Army and the Israel Defense Forces. He later made a political career in the General Zionists and Liberal parties and in the Likud. For ten years, Savidor was director-general of Israel Railways, and eventually the Speaker of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The Tel Aviv Central Railway Station is named after him.

Menachem Savidor, head of the Knesset. Photo: official website of the Knesset

In the turbulent years before and after the Revolution, Jews were prominent among both the bourgeoisie and revolutionaries of Bakhmut. Jewish participation in business and the Revolution corresponded to their share of the city’s population.

Between 1924 and 2015, Bakhmut was called Artemivsk, in honor of a communist leader of Ukraine. Jews took an active part in all structures of the communist government; but they also became victims of the Red terror.

For example, in 1925, the secret police arrested fourteen people on charges of Zionist activities; eleven of them were Jews. During the Stalinist repressions of 1937–1939, Jews comprised 15 percent of the more than 500 repressed residents of the city, a figure higher than the share of Bakhmut’s population.

The large synagogue was shuttered in 1928. Jewish schools were shut down in 1937–1938; most clandestine religious schools (cheders) were closed, and their teaching staff was arrested. Even before the arrival of the Nazis, the Soviet government was liquidating all forms of the national and religious life of the Jews of Artemivsk.

The Holocaust in a cave
When the Nazi invasion began, Artemivsk was home to 5,300 Jews, constituting nearly 10 percent of the total population. Two-thirds of the Jewish population was drafted into the Red Army, or they were evacuated.

On 7 January 1942, the occupation-era newspaper Bakhmutsky visnyk (The Bakhmut Herald) published a “Message” from the city mayor Holovnia, a former German-language teacher: “For the purpose of isolated placement, all Jews must gather on 9 January at the municipal park, in the former NKVD building. It is permitted to bring ten kilograms of luggage and food to last for eight days. Keys to apartments indicating surnames and addresses should be handed over.”

These unfortunate victims of Nazism were held for three days in a freezing cellar without food and water. Local residents threw lumps of snow through the windows, to provide at least a bit of water to the prisoners. A few Jewish children were saved by city residents, who were eventually granted the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

The horrific finale arrived on 11–12 January 1942, when German soldiers shot 1,224 Jews of Artemivsk inside a shaft of the alabaster mine; their bodies were immured underground in cell №46. More than 350 more Jews were killed in other districts of the city.

German photograph depicting the entrance to a mine where the Jews of Bakhmut were shot (1942).

In September 1943, Artemivsk was liberated from the German armies. Local residents began to search for the vanished Jewish population. They discovered an oval-shaped underground cave packed with corpses. The bodies were laid out on the ground for identification. But only a few dozen people were identified because entire families of Jews had been murdered, and there was no one to identify them.

The laid-out bodies of Jews killed in Artemivsk, October 1943. Photo:

After the war, SS-Obersturmführer Hans-Joachim Sommerfeld, the commander of Sonderkommando 4b, who was in charge of the killings of the Artemivsk Jews, held high positions in the Berlin and Hannover criminal police departments. He and his subordinates were tried in Düsseldorf only in 1973. For directing the mass killings of the Artemivsk Jews, Sommerfeld was sentenced to six years; he died peacefully in retirement in 1995.

From the Nazis to Putin
After the Second World War, the storehouses of the Artemivsk champagne factory were set up in the mine shaft that is connected with the Holocaust tragedy. In 1999 a commemorative “Wall of Sorrow” was built in the underground cell №46, thanks to support provided by the city’s Jewish community and Arkadiy Klein, the director of the factory.

The creator of the memorial is the architect Volodymyr Sotnyk. The remembrance hall was opened on 12 January 1999, the 57th anniversary of the mass shootings. The central part shows the figures of women symbolizing pain, suffering, and sorrow. On their breasts are bells that do not allow memory to fall asleep. The wall of the memorial was called the “Wailing Wall” because water is constantly dripping down it, making it seem as though the wall is weeping for those who were killed.

The last commemorative ceremony in this hall was held by the Bakhmut Municipal Council on 11 January 2022, one and a half months before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Commemorative ceremony held in the hall of cell №46. Photo: Bakhmut Municipal Council

As a result of Russian aggression and the mass shelling of Bakhmut’s residential neighborhoods, the old synagogue was damaged.

I was informed about this by Haim Dubrov, the thirty-eight-year-old former head of the Bakhmut Jewish community and director of the local charitable center Hesed Zikaron. Together with his wife, Liora, and daughter, Adele, he was forced to leave the city in early March 2022. The family now lives in Germany.

Left to right: Haim, Adele, and Liora Dubrov before the Russian invasion.

“This synagogue was a historical monument for Jews,” Dubrov emphasized.

Dubrov is in contact with the people who have stayed behind in Bakhmut, and he follows the news about the city via video reports posted on the Internet. According to him, there is fierce fighting at the very place where Jews were killed during the Holocaust, as well as in the vicinity of the local cemetery, where the bodies of the Jewish victims who were killed in the mine shaft were reinterred in 1943.

“It is highly likely that this area is seriously damaged now. The Russians heavily shelled the vicinity of the cemetery,” Dubrov recounts.

Before the war, he had moved to Bakhmut because his wife was born there. When the family was fleeing Bakhmut in a hurry in March 2022, it left behind a new house and all its belongings.

“Unfortunately, I left my personal and work laptops in Bakhmut; all our family and community photos were on them. Our whole life was left behind. I know that our house was damaged by Russian shelling. On a video I saw that our gate is broken, and you can’t see the garage. A third of the buildings on our street are gone. Everything is smashed and open. We had a second property in another district; it is definitely gone. On a video I saw that this part of the city no longer exists,” says this Jewish refugee from Bakhmut.

Bakhmut in December 2022, after being shelled by the Russians. Photo via the Telegram channels of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU)

Dubrov estimates that before the Russian invasion, there were up to 300 Jews living in the city. Nearly a hundred people regularly took part in Jewish community programs. “Right now, nearly everyone has left — for Germany, Israel, Kyiv, Dnipro, and Uzhhorod. Some people who left were wounded. There were also two women, a mother and daughter, who absolutely refused to leave, but we’ve had no contact with them. About a month ago, I saw them in a photograph taken of volunteers who are distributing humanitarian aid in Bakhmut,” he says.

“I have no more energy; I will never return to Ukraine. Everything that we owned, we put all the money into our future, building our house and the adjacent territory; we economized on everything. Now, at nearly forty years of age, I have to start over again from scratch,” says this former head of the Jewish community of Bakhmut, sharing his bitter plans for the future.

According to the Ukrainian government, of the city’s prewar population of 65,000, as of February 2023, when Bakhmut turned into a battlefield, between 5,000 and 6,000 people remain under constant shelling by the occupiers.

The Russian invaders may declare Bakhmut Judenfrei (free of Jews), just like their Nazi predecessors did eighty years ago — because under the false slogan of “denazification,” the Russian Federation is carrying out the “dejudaization” of Ukraine by its military aggression, which is devastating Jewish communities in small cities across Ukraine.

Jewish communities in cities like Bakhmut practically have no chance of being restored after the war ends.

The history of the Jews of Bakhmut, which began over 220 years ago, may end unhappily because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Hall of Sorrow commemorating the murdered Jews of Artemivsk (Bakhmut), now occupied by Russian troops.

Andriy Lysenko, my classmate at the History Faculty of Kharkiv National University, who was teaching history in a school in Kharkiv oblast, volunteered for the Special Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine. Although he did not have to do this because of his age, he decided to go and defend his country. His subunit has been holding the defense of Bakhmut for several months.

In late January 2023, our group of History Faculty graduates collected money and bought Andriy a thermal imager. Through the Israeli logistics center MARLOG, founded and supported by the NGO Israeli Friends of Ukraine, Israeli first-aid kits and thermal underwear were sent to Andriy’s brigade. I corresponded with Andriy until 25 January, when he wrote that their detachment had entered the outer edge of Bakhmut’s industrial zone and that they were experiencing losses. After 26 January, he stopped communicating.

When I finished writing this article, on 4 February, I received a message from the deputy commander of his battalion, saying that Andriy “has disappeared without a trace” and that there is “no chance that he has been captured.” I dedicate this article to the memory of my friend and classmate, Andriy Lysenko.

Text: Shimon Briman (Israel).
Photos: Personal photo archive of Haim Dubrov.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.